This Fourth of July, those who identify themselves as non-believers, or humanists, or atheists—or a whole host of other names which signify a nontheistic worldview—have much cause for celebration. After eight years in the Bush wilderness—and an even longer period of ostracism by the Washington political establishment—a rising demographic of like-minded Americans and a new president are guiding us back to our roots as a secular nation.
“We have generally been a pariah group in America,” says Woody Kaplan, Advisory Board Chair of the Secular Coalition for America. “Pretty much unrecognized by the political establishment. Yet there’s almost no religious group in America as large as us…. We were that third rail that politicians failed to touch.”
Indeed when the Obama Administration invited the Coalition to the White House for a meeting in May it marked a stark departure from recent history.
“Joe Lieberman famously talked about the constitution providing for freedom of religion but not freedom from religion—and questioned the possibility of non-believers to be ethical human beings,” Kaplan says. “Suffice it to say we were never invited as an identity group into the Bush White House. But interestingly enough… we were only invited into the Clinton White House under the rubric of core civil rights or civil liberties interests, and not as an identity group of nontheists.”
Things began to change shortly after then-Senator Obama announced his candidacy for president.
“He was on one of those talking head shows,” Kaplan says. “And he was talking about Dr. King’s arc of the moral universe bending towards justice. He followed that with ‘no matter what your belief system’—and he made a list, a litany—‘whether you’re Christian or Jewish or Muslim or have no religion at all.’”
Within a week the Coalition approached Obama. They let him know they had never been part of that “list” before—never had had a seat at the table—and they would appreciate it if he would continue to include them whenever appropriate.
As Herb Silverman, the Coalition’s President says, “Lip service is better than no service at all.”
“It’s helpful in bringing us out of the closet,” Kaplan says.
Obama agreed and remained true to his word. And then came the moment approximately 50 million Americans—who identify themselves with terms like agnostic, atheist, materialist, humanist, nontheist, skeptic, bright, freethinker, agnostic, naturalist, or non-believer—will never forget. In his inauguration speech, Obama said, “…Our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers.” Two weeks later he talked about “non-believers” and “humanists” at the National Prayer Breakfast.
Kaplan gives a sense of both the historical and personal significance of Obama’s words.
“The shock came at the inaugural speech—arguably the biggest speech a President ever makes—and he listed us there” he says. “And he’s continued to do that—he mentioned us twice at Notre Dame. And then he did it [this month] in Normandy. I can’t tell you what a pariah group feels about those statements. For the first time we have a seat at the table. We’re not thought of, evidently, as automatically unethical.”
After meetings with the Obama transition team in coalition with other groups interested in church-state issues, the Secular Coalition for America was invited to the White House for its own meeting with Associate Director of Public Engagement Paul Monteiro. Kaplan, Silverman, Legislative Director Sasha Bartolf, and Associate Director Ron Millar all attended.
“It was the first time a nontheistic group met privately with the White House,” Silverman says. “So in large part we just got to know each other… to have them learn more about our constituency, how many people we represent.”
The Coalition described the “full spectrum of nontheists it represents” within its nine member organizations. (Now ten, with the recent addition of American Atheists). Among those organizations are the Society for Humanistic Judaism, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, and the American Humanist Association. The Obama Administration expressed particular interest in reaching out to the Secular Student Alliance. The Coalition also addressed some of the issues of greatest concern to nontheists, including coercive religious proselytizing in the military, faith-based initiatives, and employment discrimination.
“We also pointed out that we are much more unified than we used to be, and so we hope our needs will be taken into account,” Silverman says. “And that we watch legislation, we watch what politicians say. And we think that it could be beneficial to the Administration for them to take our point of view into account, just like they do for other interest groups. I think they did get the message in the White House…. We’re hoping now to become players in all three branches of government.”
As the Coalition continues to carry out its mission of increasing the visibility of—and respect for—nontheistic viewpoints, and protecting the secular character of our government, it seems to be moving forward with great confidence. This comes as no surprise, given the fact that there are now more nontheists in America than Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Mormons and Jews combined, and the organization itself has made huge strides.
Kaplan describes the Coalition’s transformation from its founding in 2002 with a sole employee and “half a year’s money in the bank”, to having a full-time lobby shop. That shop includes newly hired Executive Director Sean Faircloth.
Faircloth brings with him ten years of legislative service in Maine, including as the House Majority Whip. He also taught legal courses within the University of Maine system. In addition to advocating for the separation of church and state, he was active on children’s issues, and founded and managed the Maine Discovery Museum, the largest children’s museum in New England outside of Boston.
Faircloth says that the Coalition is “very pleased” with the recognition it has received from President Obama. But he adds, “I think we still have some important issues to address.”
Perhaps foremost among those issues is the Obama Administration’s continuation of President Bush’s faith-based initiative. In a campaign speech in Zanesville, Ohio, then-candidate Obama declared, “First, if you get a federal grant, you can’t use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can’t discriminate against them – or against the people you hire – on the basis of their religion.”
But Bush’s policy remains in place while the program is under review, so under current law religious organizations can receive funding to provide social services, discriminate in hiring for those programs, and proselytize. The Coalition is advocating to end this clear violation of the separation of church and state.
“The President deserves great kudos for making his Zanesville statement. We would like him to [now] implement it,” Faircloth says.
The Coalition is also pleased that the Obama Administration has ended the global gag rule, allowed stem cell funding, and largely ended funding for abstinence-only education programs. (There are some loopholes the Coalition is still working to address.) On the other hand, the nomination of Republican Congressman John McHugh as Secretary of the Army is a real concern. McHugh has one of the worst records of anyone in Congress on church-state issues. In fact, he voted against an amendment that would have required the Secretary of Defense to present Congress with a plan to prevent coercive and abusive proselytizing at the Air Force Academy.
Faircloth says the importance of the Coalition’s advocacy extends beyond the specific issues themselves.
“I want to be involved in those lobbying issues,” Faircloth says. “But also in terms of allowing people the comfort level and the opportunity to say, ‘Yeah, that’s what I happen to believe. I happen to agree with Mark Twain. I happen to agree with Clarence Darrow.’ And allow those people to feel comfortable joining an organization, whether it’s a humanistic association, chapter, whatever the case may be—saying, ‘I care about these values because I view them as moral values, and they connect to these policies….’”
Faircloth also sees the rise in the nontheistic demographic as an opportunity to reconnect with our nation’s heritage.
“I see historical trends coming together that bring us back to our nation’s heritage,” he says. “Think if a presidential candidate were to say as Jefferson did, ‘Religions are all alike, founded on fables and mythology’…. Madison said, ‘In no instance have churches been the guardians of the liberties of the people. Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for everyone noble enterprise.’ Abraham Lincoln said, ‘The bible is not my book nor Christianity my profession.’ These tremendously valuable leaders, I question whether were they to be a candidate for public office today… would they be [elected]? And that would be a great loss to the nation…. I think something has gone haywire when it seems that they were more free to speak their individual perspective—in some cases 200 years ago—than elected officials might feel today. We want to address that issue.”
Indeed when the Coalition ran a contest to find the highest ranking official who identifies as a nontheist (or one of the terms within the nontheist nomenclature), 60 members of the House and Senate were nominated. The Coalition spoke to each of them, and 22 admitted it but refused to go public. Only Congressman Pete Stark was willing to be identified.
Kaplan notes that the sample was skewed and that the number of nontheists in Congress is significantly larger. The legislators who were nominated were more likely to articulate their belief system than others, and some of the 60 nominees didn’t admit to their belief system for fear it would be leaked.
“But we see at the very least there are 22 people who think that honestly admitting their worldview would cause them not to get reelected,” Kaplan says. “That’s an awful commentary on a pluralistic, liberal America.”
Nevertheless, with its constituency growing—and growing more visible, assertive, and respected—the Coalition is optimistic about the future.
“All that terminology has meaning, but to me what is of greater meaning is our shared set of values,” Faircloth says. “We think that [our constituency] is a quiet, thoughtful, moral group that is significantly growing in our society and it’s time to let that blossom…. The Founding Fathers specifically addressed the issues that the Secular Coalition for America raises, and they specifically took our side on these issues. So, we’re very proud of the civil rights movement we’re involved with and we feel its heritage goes back to the founding of this nation.”